What is bench marking?

 Taking measurements for the purpose of:

  1. Accurately analysing conditions
  2. Planning and implementing reliable improvements or filling nutritional gaps
  3. Making reliable comparisons (revaluate changes over time – perhaps yearly)
  4. Researching problems divulged and/or employing relevant professionals to address issues

So how does benchmarking work for you as a horse owner?

Health issues in animals and humans are often associated with poor quality nutritional intake (food) or uptake (bioavailability).  We often seek out dietary support through hopefully good quality sources of bioavailable vitamins, organic minerals, enzymes, soluble fibres, probiotics, prebiotics, toxin binders, herbal plant extracts, amino acids and the list goes on.  However, the quality of food – grass and hay (for horses) and our own food is directly related to the health of the soil the plants grow in.

Soil health is on the decline for many reasons, including 1) intensive grazing practices, 2) high stock ratios to land area, 3) little to no resting periods, 4) drought, 5) erosion 6) lack of regenerative practices such as re-mineralizing, applying compost material, adjusting pH, supporting microbial activity etc. 

Nationally there has been a steady decline in soil quality.  Soil has become unbalanced in its synergistic microbial populations, leading to increased parasite and pathogen dominance in our paddocks.  Consequential health implications are now being widely recognised and attributed to inadequate nutritional uptake from poor soils and low-quality feed stuffs – soil health translates directly to health.

Plants – commercially grown are for financial profiting, they need to grow fast and be sprayed to grow pest free.  Little attention is paid to the nutritional value of grasses and legumes.  Very few people know the true nutritional value of the hay they feed or the grass in their paddocks. 

How to benchmark

Soil

Begin with testing random selections of soil across the paddock or property.  It is recommended to collect samples of soil at least 10cm beneath the ground surface and take samples in a diagonal pattern up, back and across a paddock/property to deliver an overall measurement of total soil quality.  Avoid strong growth areas (where animals urinate or defecate) like wise avoid bare patches (unless specifically testing why a large area may be bare).

A comprehensive soil test will accurately measure the available macro and micro nutrients (minerals), the pH level, basic colour and texture, total organic matter, total carbon, total nitrogen, silicone levels and any traces or toxic levels of heavy metals.  It is best practice to undertake the most comprehensive test first as your benchmark.  This will highlight any dangerous toxicities or notable deficiencies.  Once you know what you are working with, follow up testing can be basic allowing a comparable measure of improvements achieved or shortfalls to follow up.  Sending in a sample of 200grams blended from random dug sites is all it takes to benchmark your soil.

Grass and hay testing

Knowing what the nutritional values are of your horses’ grass and hay, will help you identify if additional grass species or legumes may be beneficial to fill the gaps where the current feed sources are deficient.

If your horse (weight/size dependent) consumes say 8kg a day of forage, you can calculate what value of minerals they obtain just from this source.  This allows you to improve the pasture quality over time, and supplement feed with a quality bioavailable organic mineral supplement where necessary.  Knowing if you have a significant shortfall will be your guide to know where nutrition is failing.

For example: a pasture analysis reporting Copper at 6.8% for a horse consuming 8kg of grass would supply a low 54.4mg.  A 500kg horse needs a minimum of between 100-125mg of CU a day depending on work load. Ideally a horse would benefit from even more than this for optimal hoof and coat quality.  Additional supplementation would be necessary for this mineral alone.

A common problem in Australia is excess levels of iron in grasses/hay and common feed stuffs.  A recent pasture analysis in NSW came back with iron at 107mg/kg. Meaning a horse consuming 8kg uptakes a whopping 856mg a day!  High iron intake suppresses zinc and copper absorption.  Horses in Australia likely require much higher copper and zinc inputs to counter balance the ratio dependent absorption rates from the excess iron.  It is worth ensuring no additional iron is supplied in any feed supplements if the grass or hay is high in Iron (read all feed labels carefully).

Sending in a sample of as little as 100grams of grass or hay can provide you with the benchmark of your horse’s main forage intake.

Hair analysis

Often controversially discussed amongst horse owners and nutritionist, as some variations to outcomes have been observed by comparing different analysing facilities with the same horse’s hair  However, if you employ the services of  a professionally recognised testing laboratory you can confidently analyse your horse’s hair to determine the status and function of your horse’s endocrine system and know if there are any toxic levels of heavy metal present. 

Unexplained health problems or poisoning may be discovered this way.  For example, Pharlap’s hair revealed arsenic toxicosis as the cause of death. FEI readily uses hair analysis to test for anabolic steroids and to obtain further information about previous abuse.

Hair analysis can reveal toxins that blood testing alone cannot always – usually due to the time lapse between intake and testing.  Grass/hay testing alone cannot confirm the absorption rate of minerals in your horse, just as testing soil alone cannot confirm the grasses uptake. Hair testing opens a window into how your horse absorbs minerals and individual metabolic activities.

Hair analysis provides a 10-12-week window into mineral and heavy metal deposits to the hair.  A very informative study of mineral intake and hair analysis of horses in Arizona revealed hair analysis may not reflect a dietary deficiency of a mineral, but instead could indicate excess of antagonistic mineral which interferes with or inhibits the physiological action of another.   The same study demonstrated that an inter-element relationships of feed mineral to hair minerals does exist, indicating a change in mineral supplement will elicit a change in hair mineral(s) content (but not one-to-one). It appears quite possible that a dependent mineral, which is either low or high in horse hair, can be manipulated by choosing a synergistic/antagonistic mineral that will affect the dependent mineral in the desired direction.  https://kundoc.com/pdf-mineral-intake-and-hair-analysis-of-horses-in-arizona-.html

Minerals must first pass through the complex systems of ingestion, absorption and circulation before being deposited in the hair.  Therefore, hair minerals may reflect other metabolic activities of interest. Obtaining a hair analysis is highly beneficial to understanding and evaluating a horse’s overall health, notable dietary imbalances and potential toxicities.

Minerals must first pass through the complex systems of ingestion, absorption and circulation before being deposited in the hair.  Therefore, hair minerals may reflect other metabolic activities of interest. Obtaining a hair analysis is highly beneficial to understanding and evaluating a horse’s overall health, notable dietary imbalances and potential toxicities.

It is worth testing each horse you own, as results can vary despite being the same size, breed and fed the same feeds.  It goes to show just how varied absorption rates are to each individual horse.   Potential kidney issues can readily be identified this way too, including sodium (salt excesses).   Always retest with the same laboratory, as the conditions and methods used may cause some variations, to make legitimate comparisons, you need to retest in the same manner.  Hair can be retested in 3 months to obtain a window into systemic changes from external influences (change of hard feed diet, pasture improvement and water).

Knowing your horse’s ‘normal’ allows easier identification of sudden changes to 1) behaviour or anxiety changes, 2) drop in condition, 3) coat colour leaching, 4) hoof quality deterioration and 5) onset of any other unusual health condition. 

Sending in the equivalent of 1 heaped tablespoon taken from trimming to the scalp is all that is needed to benchmark your horse’s hair.  Tip: trim small amounts from several locations to avoid noticeable trimming.

Benchmarking provides measurements for analysing information accurately, assists decision making for improvements and provides the ability to make comparisons.

Who to use? Comprehensive and accurate outcomes go to Wattlelane Stables.